You don’t need to be a social scientist to appreciate that a catastrophe is about to envelop the Roman Catholic Church.
In just the past week, three major scandals have erupted, focusing the world’s attention again on the pedophilic proclivities of Catholic priests.
In Ireland, Bishop John McGee who served as secretary to the current Pope’s three papal predecessors before returning to Ireland in 1987 — resigned after admitting that pedophile priests were kept in parish posts during his 23 years overseeing the southwest Irish diocese of Cloyne.
In Mexico, the Legionnaires of Christ, the largest order of Catholics in the country, declared that it was repudiating its founder Marcial Maciel after finally acknowledging that the priest, who died two years ago at the age of 87, ” could not be taken as a model of Christian or priestly life.” for his life long molestation of young seminarians and his indisputable fathering of children.
In Germany, Pope Benedict himself has come under scrutiny for his role, as the younger Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for allowing one Father Peter Hullerman, an admitted pedophile, to continue his pastoral work in another diocese. Hullerman was later convicted of molesting boys.
The recent rash of revelations will come as something of a surprise to the American branch of the Catholic Church, which for decades has endured bad press and lawsuits from victims of pedophile priests. High officials of the Church, including the most powerful among them, Archbishop Bernard Law of Boston, were forced to resign in the wake of the scandals.
Why, then, did it take so long for the same revelations to sprout in Europe?
Part of the answer lies in the code of silence on this subject among Catholic priests. Well aware of the debilitating public relations damage that can result from such exposure, the priesthood, like any old boys club, closes ranks around its offenders when they are exposed and seeks to address the complaints internally.
Another part lies in the realities of the Church’s political and financial structure. A man like Maciel had built the Catholic Church’s prestige to an extraordinary level in Mexico and had become one of the country’s richest landowners. Through his work, Mexico had become a great source of funding for the Vatican. Dismissing Maciel, despite his well known extra-clerical activities, would have been extremely damaging, not only to the Church’s political connections but also to its finances.
The third part of the answer, one that does not receive too much audible expression, is that although pledged to a life of celibacy, priests are nevertheless human beings who are officially expected to tame their sexual appetites but unofficially will be given latitude for finding outlets for their carnal desires. Young boys are easy targets, both for the fact of their vulnerability and the likelihood that their continued trust in religious authorities provides a fairly fail safe means of ensuring their silence.
This reality is well recognized throughout the Church hierarchy, with Church elders looking askance at such behavior and doing the best they can to cover it up when it is brought to public attention.
The rampant use of young boys in this way does not go back decades but centuries – and that should not shock anyone. Sexual license was a hallmark of the early Papacy with more than 40 Popes, according to the Vatican’s own archives, siring children with mistresses both before and during their Papacy. At least four popes were known pedophiles. Today it is apparently well known in Rome and the Vatican City that there are cardinals who live quite openly with de facto wives and mistresses in the height of luxury.
That is not to say that all Catholic priests are either potential pedophiles or wanton libertines. But the conspiracy of silence that has mushroomed like a tumor around priestly sexual adventurism is a reality that the Church would be foolish to deny.
In its former efforts to make this all go away, the Catholic Church has only delayed the day of reckoning. Yet the fall out this time will not be felt only by the Church. It will be felt by all religious groups who will be tarrred with the same brush of hypocrisy and will share in the shame.
In an age of growing atheism and the boundless attraction of what we once might have called pagan cults, the irresponsibility of the Catholic Church in failing to police its priesthood and set zero tolerance policies in place for sexual deviance, could have devastating consequences for general religious observance world wide.
That is not a legacy I am sure the current Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI, will want to leave his flock. But if the Pope does not harshly and assertively end the conspiracy of silence on this most deadly of sclerotic diseases, he will inevitably face a backlash that could not only cripple the Church, but endanger the very values and beliefs which form the bedrock of the civilization of which he is one of the most visible symbols.